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Daring to Cross Many Boundaries


US ASIANS: What prompted your initial interest (recognizing your long-standing interest) in writing for various tales such as "Alice in Wonderland (Snags & Snarls - for Mezzo Soprano & Orchestra)?"

UNSUK CHIN: Lewis Carroll's "Alice" is a very important book to me. Aside from "Acrostic Wordplay" I have written another vocal piece, "snagS & Snarls", using texts from "Alice" and now I am writing an opera after Carroll's book, which is commissioned by Munich Opera.

US ASIANS: Within Xi (work for ensemble and electronics that was written for the Ensemble InterContemporain), what initially brought you to create something based on the Korean definition of the composition's title?

UNSUK CHIN: The piece is not based on the title. It's contrariwise: the title suits the piece - in my opinion.

I read Carroll's "Alice" first as an adult. Yet already at the first reading, I was fascinated and completely amazed because I recognized in them much of what I had seen in my own dreams. Lewis Carroll has often been called a "master of nonsense." In fact, his "nonsense" is often close to the "logic" of dreams, which is too mysterious to be grasped with the "everyday" logic. It is easily understandable that Lewis Carroll's "Alice," besides being a beloved children's book and a classic, is a constant inspiration for many scientists and artists alike. Although there are masses of music, movies and art inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice, the stories are so complex, rich and inexhaustible that they are not likely to get worn out. These books truly speak to people of different ages and stages of development, which is confirmed by the fact that even the most banal and commercial TV animation series could not harm them.

US ASIANS: What were some of the unique creative aspects and discoveries of the creative process that of co-writing the libretto (drawn from Lewis Carroll's classic "Alice in Wonderland") with David Henry Hwang (i.e. Flower Drum Song, Elton John/Tim Rice's Aida, M. Butterfly, Philip Glass' The Voyage/The Sound of a Voice, etc.)?

"I actually, for some reason or another, have never been particularly attracted to "Alice in Wonderland" per se. I took on this project in order to work with Unsuk."
(David Henry Hwang)
For additional info on David Henry Hwang, click
UNSUK CHIN: The cooperation with David, whom I greatly admire as playwright, has been a very pleasant experience. I am impressed about how he is able to remain faithful to Lewis Carroll's great original but still adapt it in an imaginative way.

US ASIANS: Could you share the general reasons behind your usage of selected text within this piece? (It's been noted that sometimes consonants and vowels have been randomly joined together and/or sometimes they have been read backwards.)

UNSUK CHIN: Of course I have set also "ordinary literary texts" into music but I think you can make a piece with a lot of meaning using a text consisting only from "la, la" or "ABC" i.e. I think there is more sense then than if using a text boasting with meaningfulness, which is often only distracting for the perception of the music. Also, it is a difficult task to write for voice. On the one hand you have great European classical traditions like Romantic lied and bel canto. But I think these techniques don't work anymore in the music of today. So you have always to try to find something new.

US ASIANS: Acknowledging that four of the five songs will appear in your opera "Alice in Wonderland" - what is the fate of the missing song?

UNSUK CHIN: "Snags & Snarls", of which an extended version will be first performed at the London Proms and in Berlin this season, is an independent work which nevertheless has strong links to the opera.

US ASIANS: What are differences in writing and/or creative discoveries in having the title role sung by Kristen Chenoweth (Glinda in Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, New York production of Molière's Scapin, Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier and her Tony Award-winning performance as Sally Brown in the Broadway bow of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown) as oppose to Margaret Thompson?


(Sukhi Kang introduced Unsuk to the techniques and trends of the Western post-war avant-garde, which was not so well-known in Korea at that time through her studies of composition with him at the National University Seoul, including composition with Sukhi Kang. For more info, click HERE)

Sukhi Kang

Born in 1934 in Seoul (Korea), Sukhi Kang studies the composition at the Higher School of Music of the National University of Seoul. From 1970 to 1975, it continues its studies in Hanover and Berlin: composition with Isang Yun, experimental music with Boris Blacher and electronic music with Fritz Winkel. It tries out the field of the electronic music and into present the results for the first time in Korea. It animates between 1969 and 1992 the festival of Seoul for the New Music, which takes the name of Side Music Festival in 1976, essential place of discovery of European musical creation.

He becomes President of the Korean Section of the SIMC (International Company of Contemporary Music). In 1979, in a book entitled Begegnungen der Welt-Musik put ( Meeting with the music of the world ), it describes its experiment in Europe and compares the musical cultures Korean and European. In 1980, it turns over to Germany for a two years stay, initially with the Electronic Studio of Music of Cologne for a ordering of the WDR, then in Berlin, where it works amongst other things with the electronic studio of the Technical University. In 1984, it is named Vice-Président of the SIMC. It works as Musical Directeur for the Olympic Games of 1988 and composes by computer the music for the Olympic flame.

Since 1982, Sukhi Kang is a professor of composition at the National University of Seoul. Lastly, it is since 1992 Director of the Seoul- Berlin Festival.

UNSUK CHIN: Both singers are fine and versatile in different ways.

US ASIANS: What role does the staging of the production have in composing your music, especially one with a Hollywood background such as director William Friedkin (French Connection, The Exorcist) who has recently enter the world of opera (Wozzeck at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Duke Bluebeard's Castle/Gianni Schicchi and Ariadne auf Naxos for the LA Opera)?

UNSUK CHIN: I admire fantasy and imaginativeness but I'm not so happy when the music gets a subordinate role as sometimes is the case when directors change and cut the music at random, which happens sometimes nowadays.

US ASIANS: In your fascination to explore the infinite complexities within your various musical tapestries in "Gradus Ad Infinitum Fur Tonband," (composed in the electronic studio of the T.U. Berlin in 1989) could you share some details on how you discovered and utilized the micro-tone scale that consisted of 20 tones (beyond the 12 tones of Western music)? Recognizing that there were various 2 voice canons in retrograde motion that was used in a polyrhythmic fashion - how were you able to mesh these elements to convey a passion that will effectively be communicated to the audience?

UNSUK CHIN: This piece was a kind of a homage for Conlon Nancarrow, the great American composer, who wrote fifty or so "Studies for Player Piano". His music is at the same time highly complex and very communicative.

US ASIANS: Would you recommend to first time listeners to hear Akrostichon-Wortspiel (Acrostic-Wordplay) for soprano and ensemble as the ideal introduction to your passions and works - if so, why?

UNSUK CHIN: It has in fact become my most performed piece but I find many other pieces to be as fine as an introduction. I would be also glad if pieces like "Troerinnen" or "Piano Concerto" would be more often performed.

US ASIANS: Could you share the type of unique instrumentations used in selected sections that you feel best allowed audiences to "understand/feel" the colors, humor and lightness of "touch" integrated within your arrangement?

UNSUK CHIN: I can't. Different listeners/audiences will be attracted or distracted by different details.


To continue the interview, click HERE

Learn about the various aspects of Unsuk's creative life by visiting the links listed below.
Akrostichon-Wortspiel Alice in Wonderland Biography Composition Listings Developing One's Artistry
Diversity of Music Exploring New Genres Family Background Gradus ad Infinitum fur Tonband Grawemeyer Awards
Gyorgy Ligeti Kent Nagano Process of Creativity in Music Progression of Works Sukhi Kang
Unsuk's Support of Diversity Violin Concerto Winning Grawemeyer Award Words of Advice Xi

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